The first thing I saw at the St Petersburg airport was, ironically, a panel advertising Machu Picchu. Nastia was already waiting for us. Jeff got some money out of the ATM (the airport bank was closed) while we waited for the taxi and then left to the local Buddhist centre.
Our introduction to the Russian winter climate was not radical. -19 degrees Celsius don’t feel as bad as they sound when it’s dry and sunny. Also, all enclosed spaces (vehicles and indoors) are heated. In fact, Russians like extremes and crank the heating a bit too much for my taste.
There were already a good number of people at the Buddhist centre, between travellers and locals. They ha.ve a kitchen where they cook really good food at affordable prices, so we waited for the next batch of chicken soup with carrots, potatoes, celery, parsley and the omnipresent dill. Great, simple, and comforting chicken soup.
Chicken soup (R50, about $1.61)
We went to a lecture by travelling teachers and then home with our lovely hosts Ksenia and Kirill.
18 Jan 2014
It was still dark when Ksenia made breakfast the next morning. Not because it was early, but because the sun rises after 10 am in winter.
She made us rice porridge with dried fruit, and fried eggs, served along with sliced cucumber (another ever-present food item), a delicious creamy and salty cheese, bread and green tea. Kirill had kasha (buckwheat porridge) with milk.
Cucumbers, cheese, rice porridge, fried eggs
Kasha with milk
After sliding on a mini snow slope sitting on a bag full of ice (great fun!) we departed for a walk in the city.
Then we had lunch at a fast food restaurant called Teaspoon that specializes in blinis (pancakes). I was under the impression that blinis were small but they’re in fact large and thin, and serve folded over.
Blini with mushrooms and chicken (R120, about $3.86)
That restaurant also serves soups and salads. In Russia there’s always sour cream and herbs (usually dill) available to put in soups. In most cases they’re charged separately. Salads are mostly cooked vegetables with mayonnaise. I had my first borsch of the trip, and shared a Holland salad with cheese and mushrooms and a Russian salad.
Borsh (R88 + R20 for the sour cream, about $3.47), Holland salad (R84, about $2.70), Russian salad (R84, about $2.70), tea (R20, about $0.64)
In lectures and courses there was always the chance to buy water, coffee, etc. In this particular lecture a cup of espresso costed R100 (around $3.20). They also sold snacks: slices of bread topped with salami and cheese or caviar. I ate some jerky, macadamias and chocolate.
After the lecture we went to a party. The club was right next door to the Buddhist centre and had been booked exclusively for us. Sweet. Having drinks out, however is not cheap. Vodka is usually the most budget-friendly choice. I had a shot of Absolut for R200 (about $6.43), served with a wedge of lemon in the rim.
19 Jan 2014
The next day we woke up again when Ksenia had already prepared breakfast for us. I had some kasha with mushrooms, cheese and butter. The rest had homemade blinis.
Blini with mushrooms, cucumber, dried fruit, bread, cheese, butter, kasha with mushrooms
The highlight of breakfast was a Ukrainian speciality: salo, cured pork belly. Ksenia keeps it in the freezer and slices it thinly. It’s normally eaten with bread and mustard, I put it on my kasha and it was amazing.
We walked to The Hermitage from the centre. We paid the basic admission fee (R400, about $) and checked out the French and the Tibetan exhibitions. Very cool stuff.
Then we took the metro to the lecture hall. We had lunch at a nearby canteen, Narbskaya. I discovered canteens were my best bet to find paleo food, since all the food is on display. They are also cheap.
I had a “vitamin” salad with beetroot, a “health” salad, a salad with broccoli and tomato, and roasted chicken.
Salads and roasted chicken (R205, about $6.59)
We had dinner in the same place. I had Olivier salad, broccoli salad, seafood and olives salad, and a cup of tea.
Salads and tea (R230, about $7.39)
Then we had our first train ride of the tour to Moscow, an easy overnight leg that served to get ourselves used to the logistics of the rides. In bliss carriages we had open compartments with 6 beds each.
There are 2 bathrooms per carriage, which are closed before stopping in stations and reopened after resuming the trip. This is for sanitary reasons, because all the crap is discharged on the rails.
Tap water in Russia is not safe to drink, specially on the train. Fortunately, there’s a samovar with hot water on the train.
You can also buy water (plus tea, coffee, packaged food, etc.) from the restaurant carriage or from the carriage conductors, who are also in charge of cleaning, managing the samovar, handing linen to passengers and locking the bathrooms. Some staff from the restaurant carriage also sell snacks in trolleys from time to time.
As I mentioned there’s a restaurant carriage and packaged food sold by the conductors. There are also food vendors in some stations, but most people bring their own food and drinks, and share with everyone else. That night we had some Polish salami, cheese, mandarins, caviar, cucumbers, tomatoes, pisco, vodka, cognac, etc.
Train food & drinks